Cher Public

Wholly Grail

Certain opera productions become the stuff of legend as much for the circumstances surrounding the performance as for the musical results. Harry Kupfer’s 1992 Parsifal for the Berlin Staatsoper came at an epochal time, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and just after Daniel Barenboim was appointed the company’s music director. Putting an especially strong cast of under Kupfer’s direction was thought to portend a Renaissance for a house that had languished in the communist East, and hint at broader artistic possibilities for the reunified German republic.  

Kupfer helped pioneer Regietheater at East Berlin’s smaller, more progressive Komische Oper and gained widespread notice with a Bayreuth Ring, also conducted by Barenboim, before this Parsifal rolled around. Working with designer and longtime collaborator Hans Schavernoch, he stripped away much of the opera’s religious and spiritual elements while putting an intense focus on the protagonists’ individual decisions and human emotions. The highly charged interplay was set in an oppressive metallic stage shell with a huge circular door suggestive of a space station or futuristic bank vault, and devoid of any of the natural beauties Wagner references in the text.

The effort, now available on DVD from EuroArts, has a somewhat dated, post-Star Wars sci-fi feel but admirably keeps most of the attention squarely focused on the singers. And though Kupfer’s direction won’t be to everyone’s liking – there’s as much writhing and crawling around as in a World Cup soccer match – the stage business does manage to keep the opera’s static plot moving at a respectable clip for four and a-half hours.

Kupfer places an especially strong focus on the characters of Amfortas and Kundry. The wounded ruler is wheeled about on a metallic chair or laying on a large wedge resembling a doorstop, the leader of a decrepit order of knights riveted on the Grail but largely impassive to expressions of faith and hope. Kundry, meanwhile, totally dominates the action during the opera’s pivotal second act — the only flesh-and-blood woman on stage owing to Kupfer’s decision to reduce the flower maidens to broadcast images on television sets scattered about the scene. The director also “spares” his heroine at the conclusion of the work, having her dreamily step forward with Gurnemanz and Parsifal as the curtain closes on the knights, suggesting she’s at last escaped the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.

All of this might come off as a persnickety rewiring of the composer’s intentions were it not for the total commitment of the cast, most of whom were accomplished Wagnerians in their vocal primes. Thirty-six-year-old Waltraud Meier is a force of nature as Kundry, chillingly recounting how she mocked Christ on the cross, then shifting from sultry to enraged as Parsifal rejects her advances during the latter half of the second act. The provocative performance, filled with nuance and elaborate blocking, offers an alternative to the Kundry that Meier essayed in the Met’s more traditional staging of the opera by Otto Schenk the same year that’s available on DG.

The hulking Poul Elming brings a pleasant lyric voice with baritonal qualities to the title role but at times appears boxed-in by Kupfer’s conception, expressing little more than confusion or anguish to all the goings on. John Tomlinson is an authoritative, satisfyingly resonant Gurnemanz, whose excellent diction and savvy use of small gestures draw the listener into his long monologues. Falk Struckmann brings strong dramatic sensibilities to Amfortas, palpably expressing pain and hopelessness in the presence of the Grail, though his voice is arguably the least interesting of the four principals. Günter von Kannen and Fritz Hübner are also effective in the roles of Klingsor and Titurel.

Barenboim, filmed from the back of the orchestra for extended stretches, looks a little like he’s being held at gunpoint but leads a spacious, wonderfully detailed account of the score that’s supportive of the singers yet sensitive to the architecture of the long acts. Though the interpretation isn’t as flashy as Christian Thielemann’s or as lush as James Levine’s, there’s a majestic, slightly foursquare quality to his reading that makes this one of the best modern takes available on DVD. The Staatskapelle orchestra and chorus are wonderfully responsive, projecting a real sense of occasion.

Having all these well-traveled and accomplished artists in one place during their best years is probably justification enough to add this Parsifal to one’s collection. Listeners who’ve experienced other revisionist takes on this elusive work in the two decades since can also reassess how well Kupfer realized the opera’s mysterious qualities and paradoxes, and if he discarded too many elements to realize his vision.

  • m. croche

    When I saw this production, Klingsor’s first appearance, lying on his side with the spear positioned in an attention-getting spot and angle, aroused not a few titters from the audience. Speaking of which, those planning on giving this DVD to young children should be aware that some of the televised Flower Maidens are not fully dressed.

    • derschatzgabber

      For some reason, the idea of giving DVD’s of Parsifal to young children is tickling my brain beyond belief. Just imagine the squeals of delight at Christmas, as my niece and nephew unwrap their DVD’s of Parsifal. And what can beat the family bonding of taking them to Parsifal for Families.

      • Nerva Nelli

        “For some reason, the idea of giving DVD’s of Parsifal to young children is tickling my brain beyond belief.”

        I think PALESTRINA and MOSES UND ARON so much more age-appropriate.

        • Camille

          How’s about Die Soldaten for some Family Values entertainment?
          Nope? Lulu, mein Engel?

      • A. Poggia Turra

        And what can beat the family bonding of taking them to Parsifal for Families.

        This sounds like a perfect job for the Imagineers over at Disney! You could have a “Breakfast With the Characters” … every young girl will thrill at meeting ‘Princess’ Kundry, while boys will be given Nerf Spears and will have plastic stick-on wounds do they too can be like Uncle Amfortas.

        And just imagine what Pixar will do when they release “Cars 4: The Road to Montsalvat”

        • You’ve just anticipated the Met’s marketing campaign for next February. ‘A lake of blood! Bring the kids!’ to be followed by a “Family-friendly” version (at just 90 minutes long!) for December of 2013.

    • manou

      m. croche -- do not underestimate 21st Century children. My 2-year old grandson walked past my laptop which was open at the Regie page from a while ago picturing women dressed in white gowns over-painted with anatomically correct features and said “Ah! Pictures naked ladies”…

  • DharmaBray

    Currently half way through the Kupfer Barenboim Bayreuth Ring of 1991 (courtesy of La Cieca -- my Buhnenwehkriegfestspiele prize), mesmerised by Kupfer’s theatricality and besotted by Tomlinson’s wonderfully sung and all too human Wotan. I do think Kupfer’s stagings are a reference point for many that have followed in the two decades since. So definitely adding this Parsifal to my must watch list.

  • Buster

    Thanks a lot -- very happy to find a detailed review of this here.

    Harry Kupfer is still active, fortunately. He did a Katya Kabanova for a small regional opera theatre here, run by Miranda van Kralingen, who had sung for him in Germany many times. She got him to do the opera for her, and with a budget that cannot have been much at all, helped by the fabulous Johanni van Oostrum, they created the sensation of the season. Van Kralingen herself sang the Kabanicha:

    Recently, he also did the Schwanewilms Ariadne in Vienna:

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    Poul Elming, as seen on the Kupfer Bayreuth Walkure, was a major teenage crush of mine.

  • I have particularly fond memories of this ‘Parsifal’ which (ironically) WAS given to me for Christmas when I was 22 or so. I got this DVD last month and there is a write-up on my blog.

  • danpatter

    Waltrud Meier’s Kundry must be the best commercially documented performance in history. Starting with Goodall’s PARSIFAL recording, she’s on 4 CD versions that I know of, and at least 3 video versions. Maybe more? And it IS a tremendous assumption, easily the best Kundry I’ve ever seen. (I never saw Rysanek as Kundry, let me hasten to add).

    The Met PARSIFAL remains my favorite version (and I liked the prior production as well). I’m kind of dreading the new one.

    • danpatter

      I meant Waltraud Meier, obviously. My spelling has gone to hell.